Thom Donovan: Conrad. Basically I’m wondering what, if anything, inspired you or gave you the idea to write the (Soma)tic Exercises? What was the germ, in other words, of this beautiful project?
CAConrad: YOU and other friends is an answer. But also war, AIDS, studying macrobiotics, healing herbs, and studying deep-tissue massage. Also my studies of Norse mythology and the runes with Freya Aswynn, and, frankly, a thousand other things coming together to form a large lens, or filter, with which to take a closer examination of life through poetry.
War is a fact we’re told to accept. I refuse to acculturate, meaning that mine is a poetics of uncooperation for all the brutal strategies built to sustain capital gain. I insist we make these national tragedies personal. We invaded Baghdad on the spring equinox of 2003, blood libations for the gods of war. On the third anniversary of this invasion I woke DEMANDING of myself that I create some THING in my life to be a constant reminder that we are at war. I thought about hanging a sign in my apartment, but knew it would become ineffective. Then I considered getting a WAR CRIMINAL tattoo because we are all war criminals for paying our taxes KNOWING that those taxes buy bullets that kill children overseas. But no, I wanted something constantly changing yet ON me or WITH me at all times. My dead neighbor Owen haunts the building where I live in Philadelphia. I sometimes hear him and feel his presence. That morning when I lay in bed thinking about what I should have in my life to remind me of our nation’s atrocities, he whispered in my ear USE YOUR HAIR! Use my hair, HOW brilliant, thank you Owen! I don’t cut my hair and it gets longer and LONGER with the war and needs more and MORE care as does the war. Every morning I look my American self in the mirror and ask my hair, FOR EVERY INCH HOW MANY PEOPLE SUFFERED AND DIED? This is an ongoing project of intense hubris, frankly, a very long (Soma)tic love poem for the war-dead through my WAR HAIR. I have manifested physically this mournful disposition, and it’s on the top of me, pressing down all the time, and I’m under it trying to find a way to love this world as it is, and to not let it kill me, which is ironic since MY American life kills so many other lives. I’ve had dreams where my hair is on fire and I don't put it out and it feels good, fire burning into my skull where my thoughts live. I hate my hair and I’m so disappointed that we allow war to continue. Then of course as you know, the United States celebrated the spring equinox of 2011 by bombing Libya. MORE blood for the gods of war! Aries BEGINS on the spring equinox, as we know, and its ruling planet is Mars, big surprise. I DON’T KNOW how long we can put up with being told lies for this killing! Stupidity is the saddest human quality, and I use (Soma)tics willfully, always, with my war hair.
In 2004, Frank Sherlock, Linh Dinh, Mytili Jagannathan, and I formed PACE in Philadelphia, which is an acronym for Poet-Activist Community Extension. PACE is also the Italian word for “peace.” We each made a broadside of a poem that confronted the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we then went out to the city streets on Christmas Eve to read these poems for frantic, last-minute shoppers. We were confronting people on the sidewalks with our poems, and of course we didn’t know what to expect. What we discovered was that everyone WANTED this, they WANTED these poems, they WANTED to talk candidly about the wars being waged. They wanted to say we were lied to by our leaders. They wanted to share the shame and anger. We were out there suffering together, and, frankly, it felt good, unexpectedly good. It was immensely depressing watching the death toll rise AND RISE and not being able to stop it. Taking our bodies and our poems out to the streets was one of the most powerful acts of community, locating the shared sadness, and the dispirited, overwhelmed resistance.
Another answer to your question is AIDS. When I was a queer kid dealing with the violent ridicule in rural Pennsylvania, well, that was hard enough, but then AIDS came along. In other words, I was already terrified of my body because I was queer, but THEN came this disease, which many of my classmates were quick to point out was my own personal disease, a symptom of my perversion. My body became the very center of evil, and I believed them for a little while. Even when I thought I didn’t, I did. Recovering from self-hatred is an amazing plan if you can have it.
This sounds strange but being queer made creativity easier for me if only because I was shunned, forced outside the acceptable, respectable world, and writing was something I turned to in that imposed solitude, for writing was an actual place I could go to where I was free. Not an escape by the way! I really HATE when writers say they write to ESCAPE! I escape nothing, ever, nor do I want to escape! But this is my opportunity to say I’m grateful for being queer.
It was also very fortunate for my life and my poetry that I learned about macrobiotics from my friend Jay Pinsky while I was still quite young in Philadelphia. It was macrobiotics where I first learned how we strip nutrients from other living things to feed our cells. THE MOLECULES! THE MOLECULES! And eating an animal-free diet of locally grown vegetables was something I could FEEL create a different, cleaner, clearer body and mind almost immediately. It gave me a fresh start, and saved my life and my poems.
For ten years I was solidly macrobiotic, 1988 to 1998. And I remember at the end of the first year eating this vegan diet of local foods, I remember TUNING IN on the world around me in a way I had never imagined was possible. I entered the body of my local world with cellular focus. It startles, that level of awakening, and is exciting with a half-frightening kind of excitement! The dirt, the insects, the way veins in leaves cut space through the surface, suddenly everything had a spectrum of scent and color which had been opaque to me before this time. I tried to get my boyfriend Tommy to become macrobiotic because he had AIDS, and eventually died of it. I loved him very much, it was difficult, and frankly it’s still difficult to talk about Tommy. I also worked with ESSIAC, which is an herbal infusion, and this combination of herbalism and macrobiotics led me to the world in a way I had no idea was existing all that time around me without my knowing it. And I'm talking about truly GETTING the interconnectedness, seeing the web of life that we are a part of on this planet, forgoing the simpler Tree of Life model.
But it was this learned compassion for myself, other people and other animals that helped me come to the conclusion that there is a creative viability in everything around us. Before compassion and healing, this fact of everything being rich with the promise of creativity was impossible for me to see. In tandem with macrobiotics I started attending pagan festivals and studying various disciplines of witchcraft. It was through the pagan community that I started to incorporate a political and spiritual practice with my newfound understanding of my body and poetry.
To sum up my answer for you though, I would say my WAR HAIR, and recovering from oppression of my body led me to hear and trust the engine in everything. Every single thing can now be highlighted as a possible WAY to a poem. It’s true to say the poem is there, it’s right there, it’s always there, and it’s waiting, actually waiting for us. It’s like the poet Alice Notley says, “Poetry’s so common hardly anyone can find it.” I LOVE that she says that!
Donovan: What do you think is at stake in bringing (Soma)tics into the field of poetry?
CAConrad: (Soma)tics are how I live in my awareness. This is a new word, the “o” a long “o.” This word is simultaneously two words: Soma and Somatic. It’s the mutation(s) occurring when these wires cross where the poems can be found. This poetry truly is in everything underscoring Freud’s statement, “Everywhere I go I find a poet has been there before me.”
The Institute of Contemporary Art’s recent Queer Voice show included a (Soma)tic poem that I wrote for the exhibition catalogue. The responsibility that I felt at the invitation to write this led me to thinking that if the AIDS crisis has taught me anything it is the necessity of living in this world with fellow travelers. The spaces we fight for today must be the shared spaces, those which exemplify radical inclusivity. My worldview advocates decentralized power structures in economic and political governance, and art can lead the way to societal horizontalism. My first book, Deviant Propulsion, is a collection of poems that speak of deviance as a source of courage that pushes boundaries to propel culture forward. Poetry and other art disciplines are forms of courage, and the queer voice belongs to anyone willing to take on that hard work, regardless of how else they identify, beyond being human.
You ask what’s at stake though. Well, we’re living in a country where we have the first president with African blood, and there are racist people who are so angry that they ACTUALLY insisted he show them his birth certificate to prove he’s American, because they keep thinking that there has to be a loophole to this because they cannot accept this president. There’s a kind of madness in the air. And we’re also living in a country where if your mother is white and your father is Black, you’re Black. No one ever says, “We have the first biracial president.” No, everyone just says he’s Black. There is this AWFUL bigoted assessment that if you’re partially Black then you can’t claim the white, like the white got dirty and no one wants it. It’s really fucking horrible these judgments, but it’s built into our language. Not that racism isn’t everywhere else in the world, but I need to concern myself with my country, especially now that we’re presently in three racist wars at once. In 1835 Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.” In 2011 I’m not so sure we’re capable any longer. How will we ever be able to apologize to the mothers of Afghanistan? Last year three children died of war-related injuries every single day in their country. EVERY SINGLE DAY. I mean, well I mean what on earth can be done? What? I’m glad Thom you ask what’s at stake for bringing (Soma)tics into poetry, because I ask, “What’s at stake for NOT bringing it into poetry?” Whenever someone asks what the wars are costing I answer as loud and as obnoxiously as I can, “EVERYTHING!”
And if you’ve grown up in trauma you know firsthand. I grew up in a house with a pedophile, and let me tell you about that stress. A stress that takes its toll physically as well as mentally. Every day you’re thinking about your sister, “Is she home from school before me? I HAVE TO GET HOME before she does!” My days were spent making sure she was never alone with him. When you’re a child fending for another child in a world where the adults have become completely useless in their greed and violence, you learn early that our bodies are sensitive living matter. Wanting to protect another’s body with your body, yes, and using a gun, yes, getting ready for the ultimate means of protection. And also learning signs of the old man's incredible sexual appetite, which he extinguishes with alcohol and pot. An awareness is necessary. The awareness of the body means everything at such times. Everything will be destroyed if you do not, and you know it. Somatic is the real, breathing life.
Somatic is derived from the Greek, and it’s our flesh. It’s also the body’s cavity, the place where our organs rest, live, and work. The organs where EVERYTHING we eat, drink, and breathe EVERYDAY gets processed, built into the cells of the body, or of course discarded. THE MOLECULES! THE MOLECULES! I like to take the traditional definition of Somatic further because I believe VERY STRONGLY that every memory we have is cellular. The latest research on the human brain locates the actual, physical life of memory. Memory is a THING. It’s in the brain, and it’s alive, as alive as a toe or lip. We also know from centuries of pressure-point manipulation, acupuncture, and massage that muscles and other human tissue hold memories. Our bodies actually remember. They remember trauma, love, joy. Memory is everything, for without it we couldn't be having this conversation. Living in the present, as my Buddhist friends keep urging, is futile. It’s a search that needs the memory of language, the memory of conduct, love, fear; it’s a search, which relies, as any search would rely, on memory, and all memory is past unless you are psychic and see the future, but that’s just another kind of memory. I have nothing against Buddhism by the way, in fact I have more affection for Buddhism than any other structured religion. My religion is Poetry, not a religion of kindness and love but one of absolute permission. If poetry doesn’t strip me naked in front of me enemies then nothing will.
Soma is from the Indo-Persian, and means “to press and be newly born.” In other words psychedelic and energizing plants were pressed—or juiced—together, then consumed, but seeking the divine is the goal. Some people think I use Soma in (Soma)tics for drug use. I don’t care who uses drugs, I’m not here to judge, but I’m not interested in drugs these days. Drug use and healing are similar in that they are both seeking altered states, but the altered state I want now is healthier.
What I care about MOST is that the word Soma is INSIDE the word Somatic, clearly honed for the divine within. It’s always been right in front of us, this collusion of hemispheres, and for that you need no drugs. I’m on the edge of my seat every single day, waiting to see what pries me open by meddling with what I consider very inconclusive evidence of the definitions of Somatic and Soma. It’s quite beautiful.
(Soma)tic praxis is testing the boundaries of both Soma and Somatic, pushing ourselves to experience new impressions and sensations. In a recent workshop I asked us to spy on a menagerie of dolls on a fireplace mantel, with binoculars, while taking the pulse of the person next to you. Someone doing this said, “This is sensory overload.” And it is. Taking the living, thumping pulse of someone while carefully studying a community of dolls animates the moment. Dolls have been used for centuries to represent spirits, even to house spirits.
Donovan: You mentioned Notley by name before, but do you feel like there are somatic or (Soma)tic poets who precede you in your religious pantheon? If so, who? Can you talk about their somatic practices with regard to your own, also? What, if anything, do you take away from them/their work? How can their work be useful to a contemporary somatic/(Soma)tic writing practice?
CAConrad: Well, first let me say that yes, the first formal (Soma)tic workshop—although there was nothing formal about it—was in 2008, but after the first (Soma)tic poem, the one I deliberately wrote as a (Soma)tic poem in 2005, I began a series of collaborations with others to make (Soma)tic poems. A year later I began growing my WAR HAIR, but that first poem, which became seven poems, was subsequently published as (Soma)tic Midge. And I called it “midge” because a midge is a little bug, an insect, and it flies around, buzz buzz annoying. And I knew that THIS was merely the beginning of some THING and some WAY to SEE how poetry is everywhere. It was liberating to finally trust in the world this way. A poet learning TRUST is essential learning. Trusting the world, trusting the audience. When a poet is verbose in the line it’s usually a result of their thinking the audience isn’t capable without them. They are, they very much are capable, and the sooner we learn it the better for our poems, frankly.
As for other poets who precede me, who have inspired (Soma)tics, this is a long list, but let me make a few clear. A big one is Charles Olson by way of Jonathan Williams. I say by way of Jonathan Williams because one of my FAVORITE things to do when visiting Jonathan was to get him to talk about Olson at Black Mountain. One conversation that had a deep impact on me was Jonathan’s describing a class where Olson instructed them to listen to a piece of music by Dvořák, then RUN across an open field to write their poems where the natural light was better. Olson told them the field and sun would be in the poem. To me this statement of Olson’s wasn’t saying the field and sun should make cameos in the poems. This was instead an acknowledgment that the infinite qualities of our world are inherently THERE; they are ALWAYS IN the poems. There is no such thing as NOTHING. Try for nothing and the very cells of your brain hunting for nothing are themselves something. Olson wasn’t merely accepting BUT WELCOMING the interconnectedness of all things to bring forth poems. THIS IS WHY poetry is my religion, because it is the place where we are permitted to sit and gain access to our Soma no matter who we are.
But think about what Olson was instructing at Black Mountain that day. You’re listening to Dvořák, and according to Jonathan it was AS LOUD as Olson could get it to be. THEN you RUN across a field of grass, flowers, your body involved AFTER the Dvořák melting down your eardrums, THEN there is this light, the light he asks you to participate WITH, to write the poem IN. Run, you must run, through the light, in the light, AFTER the music settled into your bones. It’s marvelous, and became windows for me into the ways experience outside norms force disequilibrium. These states not only garner a momentary new set of awareness for the senses, but also present the possibility of changing the structures of thought for entire new ideas and new practices of forming ideas.
When I was a kid I spent many hours along the highway selling bouquets of flowers for my mother. That forced isolation became time for reading and learning under the cloud of car exhaust. Poverty—believe it or not—gave me the opportunity to SIT STILL AND READ! I remember reading NADJA by [André] Breton, and the line “Beauty will be convulsive or not at all” GRABBED ME! Breton instantly made poetry something you taste and smell, TRULY VISCERAL, he brought it to the body. He was saying you have to feel it, actually feel it. I wanted nothing more than to feel it!
When I was fourteen I discovered the poems of [Vladimir] Mayakovsky in an anthology at a flea market and liked those a lot. I remember not having the money for the anthology so I bought a little paperback by him instead, How are Verses Made? It had some poems in it, which is why I bought it, but mostly it was this HOW-TO through a political structure, which was interesting but also annoyed me at times. What stuck with me the most was the line, “Poetry is at its very root tendentious.” I remember this because I had to look kup tendentious, a word not part of the vernacular where I grew up. When I found the word in the dictionary I thought, “Really? Because a lot of poetry is boring and seems to stand for NOTHING!” At the time I knew I LOVED poetry, but liked none of the poetry we were made to read at public school. Well that’s not true as I loved [Emily] Dickinson a great deal, and still do. Today however I fully embrace this perception of Mayakovsky’s, but I had to find it out on my own. Resisting what is said by others has always been my strategy, so as not to build my life around THEIR ideas. But today I also understand the statement differently, as poetry being something you are willing to stake your life against. Like Breton was saying we must FEEL IT! Because when you do you have arrived inside it, and can truly know it.
Dickinson is a poet I have always been able to feel. She's immediate in that way. The first (Soma)tic in this book is Her. I wanted to invoke the high priestess, and She is the high priestess. Besides the fact that She’s completely misunderstood as this wilting lily hiding in Her home—what nonsense!—She had the courage and brilliance to take centuries of poetry and make it Her very own. This exercise came out of an argument I had had with a man I knew years ago who talked about visiting the Dickinson house. He said, “No one’s alive now who knew Dickinson.” And I said, “That’s not TRUE, there are those ENORMOUS trees in the backyard!” He said, “You know I mean PEOPLE!” And I said, “You know I ALSO mean PEOPLE!” Because I DO mean living, conscious beings, which trees ARE. Anyone who grew up in a rural setting and spent time with trees knows they’re giant sentient beings who are aware of their world. Everyone wants to visit the Dickinson house, lots and lots of boards of dead wood and they clack around imagining Emily peering out windows and writing Her verse. I didn’t even go inside the house for the visit to gather dirt for this first exercise in the book, just out back with the trees. That dirt around their roots is part of their very own symbiogenesis, the bacteria and other living part of the loam and the tree are one, needing one another. And the trees are very large, very old, and were alive when Dickinson was alive, and you know She touched them, leaned on them, was part of their lives and they were part of Her life. We take trees, grind them up, take the pulp, press it, make paper to write out our thoughts. Or our grocery lists, suicide notes, and marriage licenses, all the while with unmitigated hubris thinking that OUR thoughts are the thoughts to carve into the tree’s body, as though they never had their own feelings and ideas. The intelligence of trees was an axiom in many ancient human cultures, but today metal and plastic rule the center of gravity. I gathered some dirt from under the trees to take home and smear on my body for the “ANOINT THYSELF” (Soma)tic. And I also peed back there in order to give back what I took, as our urine contains rich nitrogen. My friend Susie Timmons (a BRILLIANT poet everyone should read!) teased me about this as we drove away! That was a very fun visit to Emily’s house!
I began this book with the quote “the living and the dead give in and wave to me” from the great Robert Desnos, a poet who was destroyed by the Nazis in the death camps. You FEEL Desno’s body and soul in his writing, it’s impossible not to! But who are “the living and the dead,” I ask. On first reading he seems to be referring to these other people he knows, has known. But the “give in” part, well, I feel very strongly that “the living and the dead” are living and dead parts of himself. He’s referring to his own awakening of his physical and spiritual bodies, and it’s a SUDDEN recognition. This line is an admission of self-actualization, a rare moment of TOTAL awareness! It is in fact an encapsulated moment of Desnos’s genius! It’s a portal to walk through, which is a perfect way to open this book of (Soma)tics.
Poetry is a blueprint of who we are at the time of writing it. Even those poets who deny the personal I, they are in there. You can’t NOT be your poem, whether you are writing confessional, in strict form, or writing a conceptual poem. Steve Zultanski’s amazing book PAD for instance, where he lifts everything in his apartment with his cock, or dick, penis, you know. It’s Steve Zultanski, that poem, that movement, his catalogue of thoughts, that arrangement, HE is in there, HE is that. He is very much in there, I mean it’s a poem where a man's cock is literally part of the decision-making process for the creation of the poem. What a fantastic book!
Sherwood Anderson’s collection of stories WINESBURG, OHIO is one of those books I had read out there along the highway as a kid while selling flowers. It begins with a remarkable introductory statement called “The Book of the Grotesque,” and it’s about how we physically manifest trauma. Magdalena Zurawski’s THE BRUISE is one of the rare books that transfer the anxieties of Franz Kafka for me. Kafka is a big influence on my life as a poet of (Soma)tics, his characters physically exhibiting their trauma, whether waking up as an insect, starving, or having their crimes written into their flesh. Kafka was always grappling with the abrupt intersections of the Soma and the Somatic, caving-in under it in fact!
I’m not caving-in though. I want to love this world, despite the cesspool it is rapidly becoming all around us. Because I’m queer I KNEW that in order to survive I had to love who I am. Where I grew up you would actually have to kill yourself for anyone to feel empathy for your “condition” of being queer. I’ve said it before, but THAT absolute need to make peace with myself has made poetry so much easier. Centuries of walls came down for me, and I’m really quite fortunate for that, but it’s not a lot of fun getting there when you’re emotionally and physically tormented along the way. Faggot became my name at school. And jocks would pass me in the hall and scream “IT’S AN EXIT NOT AN ENTRANCE FAGGOT!” The definition of vile. But surviving them is sublime.
Courage is essential, and in my opinion one of the most courageous poets to ever writ was Mina Loy. I LOVE her poems! She makes being human bearable when it seems nearly unendurable. In a 1917 interview she said something we should all listen closely to, words to recalibrate any fear by:
If you are very frank with yourself and don’t mind how ridiculous anything that comes to you may seem, you will have a chance of capturing the symbol of your direct reaction. The antique way to live and express life was to say it according to the rules. But the modern flings herself at life and lets herself feel what she does feel, then upon the very tick of the second she snatches the images of life that fly through the brain.
For most of my life I have been studying people while working stupid jobs. And my family working in coffin factories, can, pie, detergent, cough drop, dental floss, cardboard box, ketchup, and other factories. I can still SEE my father standing on the loading dock of the coffin factory lecturing me about THE SECURITY OF HAVING A GOOD JOB while coffins are being loaded onto a truck behind him. I stood there asking myself, “Does he just REFUSE to recognize the irony of this?” I have watched immensely creative, intelligent people be reduced to their most basic instinctual drive for jobs. For years my family told me ART is a luxury. Is it though? Even in failing economies? I’ve watched aunts and uncles work double shifts at the factory, come home, get some beer, and watch television all night, AND THEN die young.
Something Jack Spicer wrote was, “I only know that I love strength in my friends / And greatness”—it’s from “A Poem Without a Single Bird in It.” No one inspires me more, and spurs me into writing more, than my peers. We’re living in one of the most exciting times for poetry. Boundaries and borders of every kind are being crossed, and often crisscrossed. Having serious and lasting friendships with other poets whose work I admire has granted me unlimited access into the Soma of the poems I choose to write.
Frank Sherlock investigates the flesh in all aspects. Here’s a poet who nearly died several years ago from meningitis but struggled back from the brink, and came to us a shaman poet. Frank’s book OVER HERE has poems that are witness to the flesh rescued from the edge of transmuting beyond his control, and this is harrowing, scary, and triumphant. I had the good fortune of writing a book with Frank titled THE CITY REAL AND IMAGINED. These were very physical poems, meaning we set out to investigate the city together, on foot, to deeply scrutinize the details. We mixed his influence of Situationist philosophies with my leaning toward [Henry David] Thoreau’s essay on and praxis of Walking, in the best sense of Walking, or sauntering (to continue the Thoreau derivation), as though all ground is Holy. I’m very proud of what we did together through poetry. I find it rare for two poets to TRULY collaborate. If one poet is too aggressive and narcissistic, and the other defers for whatever reason, it shows in the lines. But if two poets come to work together and are interested only in each making this a pact for equal input and participation, then the strength of the lines will show this.
Bernadette Mayer is another big influence, and she has been waking people up since before I was born. Her lists of exercises to locate poetry continue to be used in classrooms all over the world. But of course United States public school poetry classes are boring because our government doesn’t want poor kids excited about poetry since revolution is what they try to avoid. Poetry and the other arts must return to a place of being useful. Recently I was part of a symposium honoring Bernadette Mayer and one of the presenters said, and I quote, “There is too much writing in the world!” I challenged that position as elitist, and furthermore there is TOO MUCH WAR in the world, but never too much poetry! The world needs everyone understanding our creative viscera NOW, not later but NOW! There are nearly seven billion people on the planet at the time we’re having this conversation Thom, but soon there will be nine billion. We NEED to find the way to permission, to unlock the imagination. Real change requires real thinking. The definition of art is always annoying to me. It needs LESS definition, borders that are not brick but something more porous, like pudding, yes, I prefer art with pudding borders, and you have a delicious snack as you eat your way out of it.